Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The moment I walk in I am calmer

It's the smell, I think. Books, specifically, library books, all smell the same to me. Something familiar and comforting. Paper and dust motes. My ten-year-old self with the bed covers thrown over my head.


As a kid I liked to wander the aisles, trace my fingers along the book spines. I still like to do this. I don't know why it's taken me so long to work in this place. 

And how fitting to be the person who gets to shelve the books. I start each day with a cart, everything quickly and perfectly organized by the alpha numeric label. 

There's a whole system going on behind the scenes that I never thought about. All of those books being checked out and checked back in. All of the carts that need to be shelved, and shelved, and shelved. Am I too fast and maybe making a mistake? Am I too slow, struggling to see those teeny tiny numbers? 

Those labels are what I'm focusing on when I shelve, but still, I can't help glancing at a cover here and there, thumbing through pages. A book of essays I heard about on NPR. A true crime story. That novel I've been meaning to read. And other books that snag my interest as I fit them into their proper place on the shelf. 

Books on photography and printmaking. Biographies of obscure people. Holiday decorating. I want to check out all of them. And I can. 

Different from when I was a child and restricted by what I could carry in my arms for a mile. My mom and little brothers and I walked to the library back then. Actually, it was only that one year when we didn't have a car. The walk took forever. A hilly trek through a park. A rounding of the corner. And then, the wall along the front of the library. My brothers and I would climb on it, pretend we were walking at the edge of a high building, arms out. 

A few months ago I went back with one of them. We stopped in the park and walked from there. It was a gray chilly day. The town where we'd grown up was exactly the same and totally different from when we were kids. 

We came upon the wall and I said, do you remember--

at the same time my brother hopped up onto it, walked the edge, arms out. He read as much as I did when we were little. Now he reads ten times more. 

Although, now that I am working at a library, maybe I will catch up. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

I was locked in a weird battle once

It happened a long time ago when I was living in another city.

I had never interacted with anyone like this woman before, someone so lovely and intelligent and charming that most of us who came in contact with her immediately loved her. But at the same time, there were other people who came to an entirely different conclusion. She was a liar. Manipulative. Pitting people against each other. Actively working in her own self-interest.

But I didn't believe any of that. I was one of the woman's biggest cheerleaders,

until one day, she threw me under the bus. She made up a story about me and informed our boss, who reprimanded me. I was stunned, but able to defend myself (the story wasn't true and not really hard, ultimately, to prove) and the woman was able to wriggle out of getting into trouble herself, telling the guy she'd made a mistake and then turned on someone else, and everyone moved on

but I couldn't.

I was consumed with outrage, suddenly able to see the woman for who she was, as if a veil had been lifted and every rumor I'd heard was so glaringly and obviously true. And yet, there were still so many other people who loved her and sang her praises.

When I tried to tell them what she'd done to me, I could see the skeptical look in their eyes, their discomfort at hearing my story, which even to me, sounded sort of shrill and defensive.

I kept pushing though-- I was RIGHT and she was WRONG and all of this was unfair and she shouldn't be allowed to wreak all of this havoc and then

she got me again.

I can't even remember the details now, but at the time, this new fresh outrage sent me over the edge. I ranted and raved to another coworker, pleading my case, wanting her to SEE what this woman had done, readying myself to prepare, anew, for battle-- I'd go to other coworkers, the boss-- and then pausing, finally, to hear my coworker's advice.

It was not what I expected.

She believed me. She'd had her own crazy encounters with the woman. But she didn't think I should do anything at all. And as I sputtered out Whys and Buts and NO! she nodded and calmly said,

You're never going to beat her because she doesn't follow the rules. If you keep fighting, she's going to drag you down to her level. This is a game to her, but you don't have to play.

Long story short, I took the advice. It helped that we moved out of state shortly after, but in the meantime, there was a surprising freedom and peace in stepping out of the fray. (And oh yes, there was fray. Even now, a decade later, I will occasionally get a tearful, outraged call from a stranger, someone who is locked in their own battle with this woman and who wants to share their story.)

It's bizarre to me even now how a person like this can keep going like some energizer bunny/tasmanian devil, leaving behind so much damage in her path. Much much later I read the book The Sociopath Next Door and the final pieces of the puzzle clicked into place, but the lesson I've learned from the experience is not that people like this exist (lord knows most Americans have been fully aware of that since 2016)

but that we have a choice in how we react.

When you find yourself on the path with a person like this tearing toward you, please believe me when I tell you,

it is okay to step aside.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On sleeping for a year and waking up in a storm

We're probably meant to feel horrified. A girl, who seemingly has everything, decides to escape from the world by sleeping for a year.

But I have to admit that I was strangely drawn to the main character's quest in Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It's the biting language of the book, the dark humor, the thoroughly unlikeable, and yet, somehow sympathetic narrator, and the blurb on the flap that promises one of "the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature." 

I read the book in one day, curled on my own couch, laughing at times at the absurdity of the situation (can you really go to sleep for a year?) and wondering too, how to sign myself up, because really, who doesn't want to occasionally throw on Netflix and binge-watch a season of something while drifting in and out of reality? 

In the case of our narrator it's not Netflix, but a trusty VCR and an unending supply of movies to binge-watch. The year is 2000. She's just out of college, living in New York City, working at a pretentious job, basically playing the role of a bored snotty beautiful receptionist at a surreally weird art gallery. Her on again/off again boyfriend is an asshole but she keeps going back for more. Her best friend is an easy person to push around, over-the-top desperate and pathetic, but probably the only person in our narrator's life who genuinely cares about her since both of her parents died.

Oh, and there's that awful psychiatrist, eager to prescribe any and all medications to ensure this girl gets her sleep. 

I won't tell you the rest, but please, someone else read this so we can talk about it!

Warning about the next book:

There's a dog in it, that dies. I knew this going in, which is why the book sat on my bedside table for two years. I have a thing about dogs in books, specifically, dogs dying. The book in question won the National Book Award though, and I typically like to read those. The author Jesmyn Ward won a second National Book Award last year, so I couldn't deny the pull of the book any longer. 

An hour after closing Moshfegh's book, I jumped into Ward's. It's called Salvage the Bones, and oh my God. The writing. This is, I don't know what to call it exactly, Faulknerian? Luscious metaphorical language and description, a story and characters that grab you on the first page. 

It's twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and our main character is an African American girl, fifteen, newly pregnant, poor, living in the deep backwoods of Mississippi with her alcoholic father, her brothers, one of whom raises pitbulls to fight. The dog, Jesus God the beautiful dog, and these kids- the intense loyalty they have for each other, their determination to grow up, to survive, and all the while, 

there's this storm coming. 

After I read the book, practically shaking at the end when I knew what was going to happen but praying I was wrong, when I closed the book, wondering how I could feel not despair but somehow hope, and how in the world did Jesmyn Ward DO THIS? I looked up everything I could about her, 

listened to an interview she did after she won her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I can assure you will not sit unread for long on my bedside table. She's made me question everything I thought I knew about our country, taking me by the hand gently and then slapping me upside the head,

waking me up from my privileged binge-watching reality into a world I didn't know existed but know now has always been here.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

The girl annoyed the heck out of me

Sometimes I fell into these battles with a student.

The boy who always skipped class. The girl who cheated on tests. The boy who cast a spell on my unborn child. We'd butt heads, with me using whatever meager authority I had as a teacher to win-- writing detentions, scolding, pestering. I am not proud to say that sometimes when a kid got on my last nerve, I humiliated him.

Most of these battles ebbed and flowed, lasting a few weeks, maybe a month, but not with this girl. She came late to class nearly every day, always with a note from the attendance principal.

The man was smart, a rule stickler (a good trait for an attendance principal) but there were warning signs. Once he physically assaulted a kid in the hallway for wearing a baseball hat.

But nothing came of it. Because, I don't know why. It was the 1990's.

He had a group of girls working for him, including my student. She sauntered around the school smiling with her hall pass. She was failing my class. No surprise, since she missed so much of it. One day, when she traipsed in at the end of the period, I lost it and snatched the pass out of her hand. I made a big dramatic show of stomping over to my desk and grabbing an envelope. I stuffed the pass inside and said, Here's where I'm keeping these, so when you fail, we'll all know why.

The envelope was bulging when the story broke that the assistant principal had been sexually abusing girls at the school. Including my student. He preyed on troubled girls. He made them feel special. In return, he let them help in the office. Wrote them passes to get them out of class.

One afternoon the girl and her mother came to my classroom. The girl's head was bowed when her mom said, My daughter told me you saved all of his hall passes... is that true?

She wasn't the only one who wanted to know. The school security guard, a friend of the attendance principal, (who was on leave pending an investigation) told me to give him the hall passes. I lied and said that stuff was at home. Then I rushed down to the office and made copies of everything. Later, two people from the district attorney's office pulled me out of class and took my deposition in the hallway. Turns out the hall passes and my attendance book were corroborating evidence.

At this point it was a media circus at our school. Reporters were camped out in front of the building, interviewing students. Some kids, as a joke, started a campaign to free the principal. They printed up T-shirts. What the man did to the girls became a subplot. A joke. Hardly anyone defended them. They were troubled girls. Girls with failing grades who came late to class.

At the end of the school year, I quit in exhaustion and disgust. Took a job at a private school. Moved out of state a year later. I shared my new address with the district attorney's office in case they needed me for a trial. No one ever contacted me.

The guy got away with it. The girls... well, what do you think?

But this was back in the 90's. I'm sure nothing like this would happen today.